site unseen Old Station Museum, E16

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The Independent Culture
you don't have to wear an anorak and stand on windswept platforms jotting down numbers to appreciate what the railways have meant to London. Despite being starved of funds, just compare how much we and the French spend on this vital part of the infrastructure - British Rail struggles valiantly to make the best of a bad job.

Our mainline stations such as St Pancras, Waterloo, Liverpool Street and Victoria are, of course, excellent examples of industrial architecture, even if their virtues are not immediately obvious to the harassed commuter. One of the capital's least-known gems is the North London Line - a "secret railway" which was so secret that for years it wasn't even shown on London Transport's maps.

The trains make a picturesque and delightful journey between Richmond in the west and North Woolwich in the east, introducing the passenger to parts of London known only to their residents: Brondesbury, Kensal Rise, Gospel Oak, Homerton. Suddenly, the old cliche that London is a collection of villages takes on a fresh and accurate meaning. When the weather is nice, it is tempting to lean out of the window and shake hands with the intrepid gardeners, beavering away on the allotments which border parts of the track.

The stations themselves are, if truth be known, a little seedy and dilapidated - with one major exception. Go to North Woolwich and the modern station has all the charm and elegance of a Portakabin. Alongside it, however, is a fine, Italianate two-storey building of the 1850s which was once the original terminus. Its size and style no doubt appealed to fashionable Victorian society patronising both the Thames ferries and the ballroom and theatre in nearby North Woolwich Gardens.

In 1970 the station closed, but instead of being pulled down it was sensitively converted into the Old Station Museum, one of the best of the capital's smaller museums. Packed full of railway memorabilia ranging from postcards, maps and posters to the old trucks and engines which can be examined outside, the museum fascinates buff and non-buff alike. It is open daily, except Fridays.

Prominent Conservatives who scorn public transport have probably never even heard of the North London Line, let alone travelled on it. The secret railway could become the invisible railway for all they care.

The Old Station Museum is a reminder of a time when transport could evoke feelings of pride and identity. Somehow the M25 isn't quite the same.

Old Station Museum is on Pier Road, North Woolwich, E16

Andrew John Davies